Researcher delves into strange historic deaths

Dr Steven Gunn

Dr Steven Gunn

First published in News Oxford Mail: Photograph of the Author by , Oxford Times Chief Reporter. Call me on 01865 425434

A FOUR-YEAR study by an Oxford University historian into accidents in Tudor times has uncovered a bizarre and tragic catalogue of how folk met their maker.

Dr Steven Gunn has trawled through records dating back to the mid 1500s to uncover gruesome details of city and UK deaths.

Take, for example, 24-year-old Christopher (surname unknown).

Today, if you were strolling by the King’s Arms pub in Holywell Street you wouldn’t expect to meet a ferocious bear, used as entertainment in the 16th century.

Unfortunately, this young chap did and did not live to tell the tale.

It wasn’t all bad news though.

Queen Elizabeth was delighted to be given the bear as a gift, as bear-baiting was in-demand entertainment in 1565.

Dr Gunn, of Merton College, said: “It was probably worth about 26s 8d.

“That’s the equivalent of about six months’ wages for a labourer.”

Then there is Amy Dudley, buried in the University Church of Mary the Virgin in High Street, Oxford, who famously died after falling down the stairs at Cumnor Place in 1560.

The recently uncovered report found two marks on her head, suggesting violence.

Rumours abounded that she had been pushed so Dudley could marry close friend Elizabeth I.

As we all know, the monarch never walked up the aisle.

Dr Gunn, whose work was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, said: “Although much of the material we are studying is tragic, there are deaths which could well be material for Laurel and Hardy or Monty Python’s upper class twit of the year.”

Take, for instance, the man who shot himself in the head while trying to get out the arrow stuck in his longbow.

Then there is the Cambridge baker who fell into a cesspit while relieving himself after a heavy drinking session.

One resident living near Coventry dodged a falling maypole – only for it to hit a wall, dislodging a rock that fell and struck his head, killing him.

Another has excited scholars of history and literature, the 1659 death of Jane Shaxspere , who fell into a mill pond and drowned while picking flowers in Upton Warren, a village 20 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon.

Could this be the influence for Hamlet’s tragic Ophelia?

Stratford resident William Shakespeare was five at the time and speculation abounds whether this inspired the drowning death of the heroine, who too was picking flowers.

Dr Gunn said: “It might just be a coincidence, but the links to Ophelia are certainly tantalising.”

The academic, who had 9,000 records to trawl through in the National Archives, hopes to publish his findings in a book, While archery and handgun deaths litter the records, accidents seen today such as house fires feature less. Researchers think houses were easier to escape from as they were mostly one storey.

Dr Gunn can also claim to have found an early victim of “mad cow”, a man gored by the creature in Hogsthorpe, Skegness.

His name? Robert Calf.

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